It's the typical Hollywood view of men and divorce: The guy trades in the old wife for a new, younger model and a really cool life in the fast lane.
We know the stereotype, and it's what a lot of men and women think actually happens. But we went in search of the truth, and found that it's not even close to the myth.
Here's a painful sampling of the eight divorced men we brought together:
"I was so lost in myself after divorce, I didn't know who the hell I was," said John Heany, a salesman from St. Louis.
"I was terrified of it. I was terrified of being alone actually," offered Scott Bolden, a Washington lawyer.
"It was a death of dreams … a death of hopes and wishes," moaned Joe Thompson, a twice-divorced banker.
Crushing the Myth
The myth is so easily shattered. For starters, it's not usually the men who leave the women — and certainly not the movie-version of the guy leaving for a prettier and younger female. Instead, statistics show that in two-thirds of all American divorces, it's the women who file for divorce.
And while men usually fare better financially than women in a divorce, experts say it's the men who are much more likely to come unglued emotionally — seriously unglued.
Eugene Palmore, a musician and seminary student in New York, told me that when his marriage ended more than 10 years ago, he spent weeks "not just crying …. I was wailing, and beating my pillow, just wondering, why?"
I asked the men in our group if they agreed with Palmore that it was far harder, emotionally, than they thought it would be. All raised their hands.
Most striking was Jim Martin, a purchasing manager from Connecticut. After his second divorce, he ended up in a three-room apartment in an attic. He couldn't bring himself to furnish it. In fact, he told me those first few months were so dark that he contemplated suicide. His family, he thought, would be better off.
The truth is that men don't do well alone. Some statistics show divorced men are eight times more likely than divorced women to commit suicide. And men without wives are twice as likely to suffer depression and heart attacks. (Could it be a sign of my drive for self-preservation that I've been married three times?)
Typically, a man's first reaction to a marriage ending is anger. And it can be self-directed. Lots of divorced guys start smoking and drinking more. And many jump way too quickly into new relationships — relationships that are usually doomed.
"I was totally devastated at the time of my first marriage going bad, and ended up marrying practically the first girl I dated thereafter," said Thompson. Not surprisingly, the second marriage didn't last that long.
Eventually, all of the men in our group went into counseling. None of them ever expected that being alone could feel as bad as it did.
A Code of Masculinity
Terry Real, a psychologist and author of How Can I Get Through to You? Reconnecting Men and Women, says our culture's masculine code dictates that "men don't need relationships, men don't need to be connected, men don't need to be heartfelt. And it's simply a lie."
As I listened to our group of guys, I couldn't help but wonder why it took a crisis for them to get in touch with their feelings. Hadn't they been exposed to the women's movement, or the men's movement, for that matter? Hadn't they heard of Mars and Venus? Or Oprah and Dr. Phil?
No, they probably haven't, according to Real. "I think we like to think that there's a lot more movement in men than there actually is. Oftentimes, I'll say, 'Would you treat a colleague or a supervisor the way you're treating your wife?'"
The answer, says Real, is no, because they'd get fired. Part of the masculine code, he says, is a sense of entitlement, a sense that men can "go home, rip open our belts, pop open a beer, belch and be loved. And we just don't get away with that anymore."
And thank goodness for that.
My sense is that the guys in our group, while remaining immune to change for so many years, are no longer in that state. In fact, they said several things that will stay with me.
First, they said if only their wives could see them now — if only they had changed while they were married — then perhaps their unions might have survived.
"I needed to be more attentive and I needed to do more listening, and I needed to pay more attention to my family than all the external success out there," said Bolden.
Second, they have high hopes for future relationships. Changing their ways may have come too late to save their last marriages, but maybe not their next ones. Someday, they said they hope to remarry.